James P. Hogan
"Could be them eyes,
Or maybe that smile,
But you've got the style
That drives me just wild.
Ooh-wah, ooh-wah, ooh-wah, ooh-wah . . ."
rnie Brewster hummed along with the week's number-one hit blaring from the car's hexaphonic speakers, and shouted the "Yeaaah! Owwww!" out loud as he left the San Francisco Bay Bridge freeway at the Berkeley exit. The lines of the black, maroon-trim, General Motors Leopard were low, sleek, and curvy - contrived by its designers to convey subliminal suggestions of phallic imagery and sexual potency. The dummy air-intakes and racing exhausts carried connotations of power and strength, laced with a hint of danger; the imitation wood-grain interior paneling, and leather-scented upholstery spoke of sophistication and taste; and the dash-mounted driving compass, padded steering wheel, and authentic-looking manual gearshift projected the qualities of competence, confidence, and rugged masculinity that the General Motor's marketing psychologists had identified in the self-images of 72.3 percent of the males, aged twenty five to forty, in the educational, occupational, and income grips at which the Leopard had been targeted.
Actually, the engine concealed inside the shell was a low-cost, four-cylinder model imported from Taiwan, and the mounting frame a modified chassis originally developed for a brand of golf cart. But Arnie Brewster was oblivious to anything like that as he came out of the exit curve at thirty-five miles per hour to the accompaniment of synthesized wind-noise and tire squeals injected into the sound system. He pictured himself as Stephan Blane, the suave undercover CIA agent of the series Department Five, with a tense but trusting blonde flinching beside him as he raced to elude a hail of bullets from the blue Ford following behind.
In fact, Arnie thought that in looks and mannerisms he did resemble Stephen Blane. He wondered secretly if other people saw the same similarities. To help them make the connection, he sometimes practiced nodding to himself in the slow, narrow-eyed way that Blane did when pondering a problem, or raising his chin defiantly with one eyebrow lifted, which always struck him as roguish and cavalier.
As the car's computer quietly overrode the gas pedal to keep him safely back from the truck in front, he wondered it Mr. Myelow's secretary, Patty, was listening to the same channel on her way home, and if she was, whether the tune was conjuring up a Blane-image of him in her mind also. He had no doubt she was one of the young swingers that the documentaries talked about, and he was sure, too, that she found him interesting - the way she pretended to ignore him was a sure giveaway. Perhaps she harbored a secret fascination for mature, self-assured men. The thought was tempting. ... But as Dr. Korban, the senior psychiatrist in The Mind Menders had said in the episode about the ex-paratrooper who went berserk with a flamethrower and cremated everybody in the office because of their attitudes toward his affair with the computer operator, mature, serious-minded men keep their business and their private lives separate. Oh, the sacrifices that the wise and noble chose so selflessly to bear!
He arrived home in Berkeley and parked in the drive-way, looking up automatically as he climbed out to see if there were any UFOs hovering overhead. There weren't. So, slinging his two-hundred-dollar ski jacket - an essential part of the rugged and carefree, open-air man's wardrobe - over his shoulder and hooking a thumb casually in his belt, he sauntered up to the door, at the same time stealing a nonchalant glance across the street to see if Laura Thompson was watching through her drapes - cars were frequently parked outside the Thompsons' until the early hours, and there had been a program not long ago about spouse-swapping in suburbia. She wasn't.
The sound of the TV greeted him when he entered the house. Light was showing from the living room. As he hung his jacket in the hallway, he noticed in the mirror that he had missed shaving that morning. With his partly unbuttoned shirt and fleece-lined leather vest, the shadowy chin and cheeks gave him a lean, work-hardened look that enhanced his features, he thought It reminded him of the part that Vincent Calom had played in the movie Big Man's Country - the scene where he returned home to his firelit cabin after a day of timber felling to find his devoted wife ladling stew from an iron pot, while their son hung his rifle over the fireplace after keeping watch over the homestead for the day. Arnie leaned closer to the mirror and narrowed his eyes to make them look hard and steely then, drawing himself up tall and savoring the feeling of hard-won pride that came with being Man, the Provider, the Protector, he turned and strode into the living room.
Beth was sprawled in the recliner before the six-foot wallscreen, dressed in red-white candy-stripe glitter pants and a yellow, cutaway tunic top as worn by female engineering officers in Galactic Command. She had made her hair orange with green stripes, put on dark purple lipstick and eyeshadow, and was eating onion dip and crackers. Arnie waited expectantly. Beth took no notice. After a few seconds he said, "Hey, it's me, like, I'm home, you know..."
"Shhh! Joseph Donnelly has found out about Sylvia and Hank. He's gone out and bought a gun. l gotta see what happens," Beth scooped up some more dip and glanced at him. "Why don't you go get a shave? Stan and Ella are coming over, remember? You look like an ad for a hangover cure or something."
Arnie snorted and walked out again. There was no other sign of life. No doubt Kenny was shut up in his room, wasting his time as always with the garbage that kids filled their heads with these days. Mumbling irritably to himself, he stomped away to the kitchen to light a joint and pour himself a beer.
In the commercial showing on the screen an hour later, the couple who had arrived for dinner were average, healthily image-conscious people, he in a satin-edged coat, and wearing an iridescent wig of optical fibers, she in a Psi-Lady meditation suit, with a combination purse and video-game cartridge carrier. Ella and Stan were watching from the coach. "Wasn't she in some kind of murder movie or something ... after she got divorced from Tony Sentini?" Ella murmured, munching absently and keeping her eyes on the screen.
"Yeah - Terror in the City," Beth said, still in the recliner. "She plays a clairvoyant who can replay murders in her head. She puts the detective straight after he's run out of clues."
"Johnathan Field," Arnie added.
"Huh?" Stan said.
"Johnathan Field. He's the detective on the case. That's how she proves she can do it. Everyone thinks she's a fake, see."
On the screen, the two guests were sipping before-dinner cocktails. Suddenly the woman nudged her husband and pointed to a faint finger-smudge on her glass. "Body-grease!" she whispered behind her hand. The husband put down his own glass hurriedly, glancing from side to side and looking apprehensively at the cutlery. Moments later the scene ended with a shot of the couple departing early on a pretext, and then the embarrassed host consoling his distraught wife.
"Donna Janson is psychic," Beth commented,
"Huh?" Stan said.
"Donna Janson - she's psychic... in real life. She can really do it."
"She was in that movie a couple of weeks back," Ella said. "The one where the brain surgeon was supposed to put a computer chip in the general's head, but the nurse switched the gurneys on the way to the operating theater, so they did it to the Russian spymaster instead."
On the screen, the hostess's wise and knowing mother was educating her daughter in the use of "Bodyguard." After spraying fingertips and palms, they embarked on a tour of the house together, rapturously drenching drawer handles, doorknobs, lightswitches, toilet seats, phone buttons, and anything else carrying the risk of indirect contact with another human being. The ad ended with the husband and wife again, this time waving good-bye to their guests after a brilliantly successful dinner party, and. then flinging their arms ecstatically round each other - presumably after taking suitable precautions by copious application of Bodyguard.
"She predicted that earthquake last year," Beth said. "Where was it, India? Indianesia? Indi-something, anyhow. Her manager said so, too, so it's true."
"Donna Janson wasn't in that movie," Stan told Ella. "She was in the one where the doctor put his wife's lover's brain inside the gorilla after they had the car smash. That's what you're thinking of."
"Was it? ... Maybe it was." Ella shrugged. "So what's the difference? They were both brain surgeons, weren't they?"
"I'm just tellin' ya, that's all."
"Yeah, well, I didn't ask, did I? Why are you always picking on me?"
"I'm not picking. I just -"
"Did I ever tell you I was psychic?" Beth said. "That time after the dog got hit by the truck, I knew it was gonna happen. I always said it was gonna happen one day. And when the phone rang yesterday, didn't I say, I bet that's my sister, Arnie? And wasn't it my sister?"
"Hell, you knew she was going to call because of the tickets," Arnie said.
"YOU ARE!" Ella shouted suddenly as Wally Klein began introducing the news, She shook her head, flinging her hair from side to side, and gnawed at her knuckle. "You're always picking on me, Stan. Why do you do this to me? You try to humiliate me and I don't know why. What did I ever do to get treated this way? I don't deserve it. You think you can do better for yourself? Okay, then go do it, but don't come crawling back to me when she's spent all your money. I've had it, see!"
Stan's mouth was frozen half open in the act of biting at a pickle. He stared at Ella in astonishment. "Shit, all I said was -"
"Don't you lay a finger on her in this house," Beth warned him sharply. She sat up and put an arm around Ella's shoulder. "There, Ella, it's okay."
"JESUS CHRIST!" Stan roared, leaping to his feet, He rushed across the room, banged his forehead against the side of the lounge doorway, and stood there, pounding a fist against the paneling. "You know you mustn't do that, Ella," he muttered. "I have this anger, see... and you gotta help me keep control of it. It's from when I was in the Army Combat sickness - know what I'm trying to say?"
"You never went outside New Jersey and Arkansas the whole time you were in the Army," Ella told him.
"GODDAMIT, WHY DO YOU HAVE TO CONTRADICT EVERYTHING I SAY?" Stan shouted, spinning round. "That's what you think, huh? Well maybe there were a lotta things I did in the Army that I never told you about, okay?"
Arnie gave a slow, narrow-eyed nod. "Look, why don't we all calm down and discuss this like sane, civilized people?" he suggested, rising to his feet.
"I AM BEING SANE AND CIVILIZED!" Stan bawled, "It's her. She's got paranoid delusions or whatever you call them things. It's those pills. Ella, didn't I tell you not to mix 'em with the yellow ones?"
"SHUDDUP, ASSHOLE! WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT ANYTHING?" Ella screamed.
"CUT IT OUT!" Beth shouted above both of them. Silence descended abruptly.
"Ahem," a new voice said. All faces turned toward the hall doorway. Arnie groaned beneath his breath and covered his eyes with a hand.
It was Kenny, and as usual he was looking outrageous. It was embarrassing. He was wearing one of the tweedy jackets, with buttons and lapels, that were part of the latest teenage cult craze. He had pants with ridiculous creases that made them stick out from his legs, a pointed strip of colored material tied around his neck, and his head was shorn almost bald, with the little hair he had left brushed flat and parted; his face was like a ghost's, without a trace of cosmetic, and his shoes were rubbed shiny like a pair of bathroom faucets.
"I didn't mean to interrupt, but I'm just on my way out," Kenny said. "I didn't realize we had company. Mr. and Mrs. Williams, hello,"
"I ain't having you corning in here and talking to our friends like that," Arnie growled. "You know what I mean - with all that talk you pick up outside. They're Stan and Ella, see. They got names."
Kenny grinned good-naturedly. "Oh sure, I forgot. Sorry, Dad."
"How many times do I have to tell ya?" Arnie demanded. "I'm Arnie, see. And that's Beth. Get that? We got names, too. Anyone's think we're things or something. It's some kinda psychological problem with you. A deliberate, symbolic rejection. I know about things like that, see."
"I'm sorry, I'll try and remember how you feel," Kenny promised,
"And don't keep apologizing all the time," Arnie told him. "You're telling me it doesn't matter, right? What's wrong with you kids? It's insulting to talk to people like that, without no feelings - like they don't matter. People who are worth something are worth expressing feelings at, ain't they? Well, what's the matter with us? Aren't we worth the effort of yelling and screaming at?"
"Sure you are... er, Arnie. But it's just that -"
"THEN START YELLING AND SCREAMING AT ME FOR CHRISSAKES!" Arnie exploded. Kenny started to say something, then stopped, hesitated, and finally shook his head. Arnie flopped down into an armchair.
Ella stared silently at the floor. Then Beth said to Kenny, "It just ain't right, the way you kids behave - turning your backs on the world and trying to run away from it. I mean, where's it supposed to get you in the end? Okay, so you're only fifteen, but you have to grow up some time. What about all the time you'll have wasted, huh?"
Stan unglued his forehead from the side of the lounge doorway and turned. "Your ma's right, kid," he said. "I don't know where you kids think you're heading either, but let me give you some advice, and I've been around.: Get wised up. You've gotta get in touch with the real world and start acting like real people."
Kenny stared for a second, then shook his head incredulously and gestured at the wallscreen. "That has got something to do with the real world? You can't be serious!! When did you last look out of a window?"
"What do you know about anything?" Beth challenged, turning in the recliner. "You're always shut up back there with your nose inside a book."
"Books?" Stan looked nonplussed. "He reads books?"
"Hundred of 'em," Arnie said. He tossed out a hand wearily. "They're all round his room, stacked on the shelves ...everywhere."
"We read a book just a couple of months ago, Stan, don't you remember?" Ella murmured distantly.
"Sure, why not?" Kenny said. "All the kids collect books. You can find them in yard sales and flea markets. And a couple of stores that specialize in them have opened up in the city. They're not that expensive, either."
"Why would anyone bother?" Beth asked. "They can get all they want on TV."
"The pictures are better," Kenny said. Beth stared at him uncomprehendingly. "You go at your own speed, pause whenever you want to think about something, and you can go back over it if you need to."
"But you have to spell out all them words," Beth objected.
"Well, yes, there is that," Kenny agreed "But it gets easier after a while, with practice."
"It was about astrology and birth signs," Ella said, looking at Stan. "How tuning in to stars and planets and stuff can keep you healthy and make lots of money. You went out and bought that set of charts, and the personalized horoscope computer that cost eighty-five dollars."
"Yeah, Kenny's got lots of books like that, too," Beth said.
"That's astronomy," Kenny told her. "It's not the same thing."
"Does it keep you healthy and make you rich, too?" Arnie asked.
"Not directly, unless you happen to be a professional astronomer or science writer," Kenny replied. "But then l doubt if superstitions based on simplistic notions of cause-and-effect are likely to do much for you, either - except make you eighty-five dollars poorer, maybe."
"It's the same as them 'mathematics' that you and that Marvin Stewart kid are always scribbling on pieces of paper," Arnie grumbled, "What do you think they'll ever do for you?"
"Paper?" Stan repeated, blinking his eyes. "You mean with pens? They write things on pieces of paper with pens?"
Ella stared in disbelief. "You mean without any button-pad, even? No screen?"
"They've even got a game they play without a screen," Beth told them. "Chess, or something, they call it. They push pieces of wood around on a board."
Stan gave Kenny a worried look. "You mean that's it? They just move pieces of wood around on a board? Nothing else happens?"
"It doesn't even have batteries," Beth moaned miserably.
"That's what you get for your trouble, Stan," Arnie said in a hopeless voice, "You do your best, and all you get is rejection. No gratitude, no appreciation. And on top of that they have to be reasonable with you all the time, and discuss everything... and talk in that low-key kind of way that drives you crazy - as if you're not worth arguing with." He shook his head. "They don't try to solve their problems, Stan. They think about them."
"That's bad," Stan said. "You mean just sitting there, staring at nothing - not doing anything about anything?"
"Right." Beth waved vaguely at the screen, which was showing baton-swinging police clashing with demonstrators in a street riot somewhere in South America. "It ain't as if they don't ever get to see the proper way to handle life... I mean, everyone has problems, right? But people need to do something positive about them - like they throw something, scream, smash things, go out and have a breakdown and beat up on somebody, or whatever... But kids these days don't do things like that any more. All they do is sit and talk, and then say the problem's gone away, or maybe it ain't so bad or something. They won't face up to anything."
"Hyperpassivity," Ella pronounced. "That's what Dr. Friedmann said was wrong with Alice's daughter in Bayview Apartments. Too much thinking is the first sign of losing touch with reality. It's a big problem everywhere with kids. There are some pills that will get him back up to a normal level of hype."
"Thanks, but I'm sure I can manage fine without," Kenny said hastily.
"Don't keep thanking people," Arnie complained. "It ain't good manners. It sounds like people are doing you favors or something... as if they're nobodies trying to get liked."
"Well that god-awful music you play in there aren't get you anyplace," Beth said to Kenny. She turned toward Ella and Stan. "You know the kind of stuff I mean - no beat or feel to it at all, just noise."
"The kids across the street from us are always playing it out the window," Stan said, nodding. "It's primitive, not even electronic. I went over there one night and set fire to their rose bushes."
"What's that place you were talking about the other week?" Arnie asked Kenny. "Beat Heaven or something? I mean, what's it all about, huh? Where in hell is Beat Heaven supposed to be?"
"Beethoven," Kenny said with a sigh.
"Same difference. So where in hell is that"
"Is that where they wear all the freaky clothes, Kenny?" Ella asked, giggling and waving her hand at his general appearance.
"They don't say anything, kid," Stan told him,. "Are you ashamed to be yourself? Is that what it is, huh?" He gestured down at his own crotch-hugging white pants with scarlet side-stripes, tucked into calf-length astronavigator boots, officer's belt with Alpha Centauri Squadron buckle, and navy, white-trimmed blouse, complete with Strikefleet shoulder patch, "See. You should try to find yourself, and them tell the world who you are - like a starship admiral, for instance. It's easy once you find yourself and make the effort to fit in."
"But I never lost myself," Kenny said, "And I'm not a starship admiral."
"You have to be something sooner or later," Ella insisted. "You can't spend your whole life staring at books and listening to crazy music. You have to get involved eventually. It ain't all gonna change to suit you."
There was a short pause. Then Beth lowered her eyes and said dismally, in the voice of someone finally revealing a long-concealed secret of congenital madness in the family, "He says he wants to be some kind of scientist." She looked at Arnie. "What was it, a fizzy-something?"
"Physicist," Kenny supplied. Arnie looked away to hide his shame.
"But that kind of thing is for nobodies, like schoolteachers, technical waddyacallits, or people who make things," Ella protested. "Why would anyone wanna do something like that?"
Arnie showed his empty palms. "That's the way they are, Ella. They want to work, and learn things. They say it shouldn't be the government's job to keep them. Something to do with 'ethics' and that kind of crap.... I don't know."
Kenny looked around and shook his head. For the first time his expression betrayed rising exasperation. He pointed at the screen. "Look... that idiot behind the desk is telling you how the U.S. is more respected in the world today because of the way we've strengthened our strategic forces, right? But they only voted the appropriation a year ago. They haven't actually spent any money yet. They're still only talking about what to spend it on. And even if they had spent it, it couldn't have made any difference on that kind of time scale, It would be ten years at least before any new weapons ordered through last year's budgets could be produced and deployed. But they're talking as if it had all already happened, and taking the credit for it.
"Can't you see what's happening? Things in the real world don't happen fast enough to be entertaining any more. So the media have created a make-believe world that runs at several times the speed of real time, with a crisis every half hour and always an instant solution.
"It's the same with all the other 'crises' that they invent and then say they've solved. How could a crime wave of 'epidemic proportions' that nobody had heard of before suddenly materialize in two months, just before Ed Callones ran for governor - and with a program already worked out to fight it? ... And then have been 'successfully eliminated' in just as short a time alter he was elected? It couldn't have. Things don't change that quickly. The 'economic recoveries' that somebody or other is always supposed to be masterminding every six months are from slumps that never happened. The 'environmental catastrophes' that are always supposed to be imminent never materialize. And yet people everywhere believe it all and carry on paying...."
Kenny looked from one to another of the four faces staring blankly back at him. He exhaled a long sigh. "It doesn't matter.... I guess I got carried away a little. I was going out anyhow. I'll just be on my way. You folks have a good evening." With that he turned away quickly and left, closing the door behind him.
An uncomfortable silence persisted for a while. Finally Stan said, "Gee, I didn't realize you guys had it so bad. ... I guess he'll probably grow out of it, huh?"
"What was he talking about?" Ella asked, still dazed after Kenny's outburst.
Arnie was still looking down at the floor. Beth came over and leaned her head against his shoulder, "Oh Arnie," she sobbed. "We tried, didn't we? Where did we go wrong?"
Outside, Kenny pulled his parka on over his jacket and walked around to the back of the house to pick up the backpack, suitcase full of selected books, and crammed briefcase that he had dumped from his bedroom window. He carried his things to the end of the street and waited in the shadows of the shrubbery by the corner streetlight. After about ten minutes, Marv Stewart's battered '95 Chevy van appeared. Marv was at the wheel, with Bev Johnson and Harry wedged in next to him up front. Kenny slid open the side door and hoisted his bags inside. Then he climbed in to join the crush of young people jammed in the back amidst coats, rucksacks, suitcases, sleeping bags, and bundles of books. "Okay, Kenny?" Marv called from the front as the van pulled away. "Any problems?"
"No," Kenny answered. He felt drained, now that the worst was over and he was committed. "It went okay. Did everyone else make it'?"
"All here," Tom Pearce's voice said from somewhere in the shadows nearby. "You're the last."
Kenny gradually made out the forms as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Tom, who could read IBM microcode and wanted to get into AI research, was propped just behind him, next to Nancy, who had painted the murals in Giuseppe's restaurant in Oakland. Sheila Riordan, who understood tensor calculus and wrote plays, was behind them, with Kev, the chess expert, and Charlie Cameron, who was into number theory and could recite pi to fifty places.... And yes, the others were all there, too, farther back. Kenny leaned back and made himself comfortable between his backpack and a pile of blankets. "So what's the schedule?" he called out to Marv.
"Down the Interstate and on through L.A., bound for Phoenix. We'll probably stop for breakfast somewhere near the Arizona border."
"When do you think we'll make Boston?" Kenny asked.
"Aw... should be sometime around Tuesday, I figure."
Kenny settled back into the shadows and closed his eyes to rest. He wondered if it really was the way people said. Boston - home of the revolution of the New Wave generation, who were sweeping away the rejected, outmoded values of an era that was ending, and replacing them with new ways born of the rebelliousness of youth.
It was said that there were bookstores on every block there, galleries exhibiting paintings and sculptures, theaters, science labs, and symphony orchestras playing to packed halls. The University had allegedly closed down its faculties of paranormal phenomena and antitechnology to make room for arts, sciences, engineering, and business, and there were free public lectures on everything from differential geometry and molecular evolution to space engineering and nuclear physics. People ate real steaks with wine in restaurants with candlelit tables; portrait painters worked at easels set up on the sidewalks; and string quartets played in the streets.
It had been a tough decision in some ways; but sooner or later people had to take responsibility for their own lives, Kenny thought to himself - even if it did cause some upsets and misunderstandings in the short term. His folks would miss the money he'd been getting from working illegally at the computer store on Saturdays to supplement their phoney welfare checks, but they'd manage okay in the end. He was satisfied in his own mind that he had met his responsibilities to the best of his ability; he owed them no more. Eventually the time came when you had to think of yourself, He'd explained it all as best he could in the letter that he'd left in his room. They'd come to understand in the end, he was sure ...even though it might take them a while.
This is from the Minds, Machines, and Evolution, a book of short stories by James P. Hogan. This story can be found on page 261 of the soft back version.